Originally published in Tzvi M. Rabinowicz (ed.), The encyclopedia of Hasidism (1996), pp. 123-4.
Atheistic existentialism, in which nothing is given, not even God, is obviously at variance with Hasidism. Religious existentialism, with its preference for involvement over detachment, its mistrust of rationalism or attempts at “proving” the existence of God, its recognition of the importance of the individual, its stress on direct encounter, and its demand for the spontaneity that brings the whole of human beings into play, does have close affinities with a movement of rebellion against the established order and mere conformity such as Hasidism. Yet the similarities should not obscure the many differences between Hasidism and any existentialist philosophy. For all its personalistic and individualistic thrust, Hasidism is a mystical movement, which shares the mystic’s quest through self-negation (see Bittul HaYesh). Moreover, the hasidic masters, despite the rich variety of religious expression among them, were Orthodox Jews, who claimed no real originality of approach and who would have considered it to be rank heresy to believe that the traditional pattern, as God given, could be improved upon.
It is, consequently, more accurate to speak of certain existentialist trends in some branches of Hasidism than to attempt any closer identification between the thought of the movement and existentialism. These trends are to be discerned in many of the tales the hasidim tell about their saints, and some of the hasidic masters emphasize both the leap of faith and the sense of religious crisis and tension reminiscent of Kierkegaard, the founder of religious existentialism. Of these teachers, the closest to the thought of the Danish thinker are Nahman of Bratzlav and Menahem Mendel of Kotzk.
J. G. Weiss, Mekharim BeHasidut Bratzlav.